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Interview with director and performer John Rwothomack on his new play, Far Gone

Interview with director and performer John Rwothomack on his new play, Far Gone

Far Gone is a profoundly moving story of a young boy’s journey from childhood innocence to child soldier. Based in Northern Uganda, when Okumu’s village is attacked by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), he and his brother’s lives are changed forever. Seen through the eyes of those that love him and those that betray him. Okumu’s experience strikes straight at the heart through a powerful one-man performance.

Inspired by his real-life experience of nearly being kidnapped by the guerrilla rebel group LRA led by Joseph Kony in Uganda, the play draws on the contrast between Rwothomack’s experiences as a child in Uganda and the experience of being a young black man in the UK, and how perceptions of ‘Africa’ effects his own narrative.

“Rwothomack and director Moji Elufowoju create in this play a physical language that transmits the characters’ emotional states more succinctly than words can.”

This performance addresses and aims to widen the current representation on stage of Black British experience, particularly for BAME audiences.

John Rwothomack in Far Gone (Photo: Smart Banda)

ALT:
Can I ask you a bit about the premise of the play? What is the story of Far Gone? What are some themes within the production?

John:
Okay. I have to be careful not to give too much away. So, we are looking at war. The title is coming from child soldiers,the children being abducted and then by the time they become child soldiers, they’re far, far gone or far removed from society, but they’re also far removed from being a child. You know, there’s that childhood that’s been sort of, not even stolen, just snapped away from them completely. The other element for me is actually the rebel group themselves. There’s a character in it called the commandant, who’s in his forties. He’s been there for a while and whatnot. He probably would’ve joined as a 20-year-old or something, yet he is still far gone. You know what I mean? It’s the system, it’s the system that they’ve created in this world that is, obtuse, it’s sort of existence far removes a group, generations of people, and it takes them away from normality, and their normality becomes war. There is another element, us African’s being far gone from our culture, and taking on the Western culture. We are far removed from our own culture, especially with religion. The story follows a little boy who has been kidnapped by the Lord’s Resistance Army, and the transformation of the child and what that means. But at the centre is a family story. When he is kidnapped, he is forced to kill his older brother, and then has to navigate his way in the world, whilst on this journey to becoming a child soldier.

ALT:
Can you tell us a bit about your near kidnap experience and how much of that is depicted in the play?

John:
None of that is in the play, deliberately. My story of it is when I was eight, we went home for Christmas, and I lived in Kampala, which is the capital city of Uganda. I went to a village for Christmas in the north of Uganda, and whilst we were there, the Lord’s Resistance turned up, but they just stopped before they got to our village. They stopped in the village before and we could hear screaming and noise and people getting taken, people I know, and whatnot. But they stopped, they called it a night, I think that happened to me twice actually. When we left, I was eight, so that sort of stayed with me. None of that is really in the play. There are people that have actually experienced these things and so the play is based on research. Yes, there is a cultural connection that I have to that world already, I’ve used this, and it has helped, but a lot of it is based on actual events, I guess it’s historical.

ALT:
In response to your statement of taking control of your narrative, how much do you think that is happening now in terms of telling our stories and what would you like to see happen?

John:
I think it’s getting better, especially with black creatives; I think in the black community, it is a common idea of waiting to be given opportunities. The problem with that is those opportunities are being given by tables that already exist and those tables, we don’t belong to. The wood that has been harvested, that has been chopped, that’s been used to build that table is, it’s not us. Our DNA is not in that. Even if we get given opportunities, it’s being told in someone else’s terms. Personally, I think we need to build our own tables and then decide who we invite, that doesn’t mean that table is only black artists, only for African artists. No, no, no. It’s ours, we can then decide who we need.

We have got to be honest, are we doing that? Or are we sitting, waiting to be given something. In terms of the big world, it’s harder to do this as there needs to be people in place who have been given opportunity and then are able to help. At the moment, if you’re a black stage manager in theatre, oh my god good luck. Black movie directors happen a bit more, but there is a system in place that denies black people from being in these industries. More work like grassroots needs to be done. At the moment, some theatres might love to have a black stage manager but might not know any, there is not enough. The work needs to be done from the very start. If we build our own tables, we can control that as well…hopefully.

ALT:
So, in terms of the production and the cast, what can we expect from that? What’s it like working with director Moji Elufowoju, what’s her vision?

John:
Oh, she’s incredible. She’s absolutely incredible. I believe that the script, the play text, is a map that is supposed to guide the process of creating the piece. The real genius happens in the rehearsal room. And oh my God, Moji. All the creative team, they are incredible,the amount of work they’ve put together, to bring this show. And you can tell when you see it. Yes, it’s only me on stage performing, playing four different characters and whatnot. It’s just me for an hour and yes, one can say that it is a one man show, but it’s not. It’s really not. It’s a piece of art that has been created by different brains that are absolutely genius and who know their craft, who know what they’re doing, and who understand storytelling. What Moji really brought to it was, because she’s of Nigerian heritage, the idea of mixing British and African storytelling, pushing more towards the African storytelling realm and really bringing that African spirituality, what that means for our people. When I was writing it, I wasn’t even stressed, it was here or there. The best thing I did was using the same creative team for research and development, and for the production.

ALT:
So what are some of the challenges of playing four characters and writing scripts?

John:
The way I write is, I trained as an actor, so that’s sort of my way into storytelling. That’s my understanding and my primary go-to thing. I directed a play called Bad Blood Blues by Paul Sirett, and I went to him and pitched the idea for Far Gone, for him to write. And he was like, I love the idea, but I think you should write it. I was like Paul, I’m not a writer! What are you doing, I’m not a writer! Then, he sort of challenged me to write it. I wrote it the only way I knew how to write, which is by acting. So, I would get in the space, do the research of the world, the research of the characters, create the characters, get in the room and physicalise them. So, before I ever wrote a word or anything, I physicalised these people, each of the four characters, and then I made the physical language belong in my body. I wrote down scenes, this scene starts with A, B, C, D, that’s how it ends. I would just improvise it, and after, I would write it, go back home and edit it and what not, that worked really well for this show. It worked really well. The biggest challenge was creating the characters and going, who are they? Who are they? You have to know each character, what do they look like. What does character A look like, and character B? What is the ending for character C, if that’s not clear, then character B will…and so on. It’s having clarity of their voice, their bodies, their psychology. I used animal studies to understand people and the movement of people and once that was clear, moving from character to character became easier.

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ALT:
When it comes to Uganda, do you work creatively there? Is there a thriving theatre industry in Uganda?

John:
So I’ve just started a theatre company called Roots Mbili Theatre. One of the reasons I did that was because we took Far Gone to Uganda in 2019, to a festival called Kampala International Festival, it was an international theatre festival, and as I was there, I was like, wow, there’s a lot of talent here, a lot of serious talent here. I also felt like there was not enough room for it to change. I’m not saying that’s my responsibility, or that I have the answer to that. That’s a much, much, much bigger conversation than has ever happened, but the idea came to me then: how about if there was a theatre company that was based in the UK, but it’s aim, its main goal was to that for every production they do, there is a collaboration between,UK and East African artists, and you bring them together. So it’s called Roots Mbili, Mbili means twins, so two roots, if you like. That is our plan and our hope for every project we do. I’ve got a few plays I’m writing that are coming up, got a few productions. Hopefully we get those, somebody gives us money, you know what I mean? The aim is a collaboration and the creative team would be 50:50, 50% from the UK, 50% from East Africa. There are people that I am connected to and with already in East Africa, writers, directors, actors, yeah. At the moment it’s east Africa, but hopefully we will probably widen that to more of Africa.

ALT:
With this production, what would you like the audience to take away, if you could actually determine it?

John:

I would like them to go away thinking: this happened to these children, literally because they were born in this place, nothing else, but literally being born in that place at that time, you know? I hope people go well, that could be anyone born in those circumstances, where there’s a war going on, and there is a group kidnapping children. If you were unfortunate enough to be born there, I mean, how many rebel groups are there in the world, kidnapping children? And that is simply because these children were born at the wrong time, in the wrong place.

ALT:
Where do you call home?

John:
Uganda and Sheffield.

ALT:
What makes a good playwright?

John:
Oh, we could be here for a long time. I think for me it is somebody who understands that plays are not written to be read. They’re written to be staged. Yeah.The writing is a map. You have got to let that map lead the creative team, the director, the actors, you’ve got to let it lead them to the treasure. And sometimes that means you’re going, hey, okay and compromising.

For tickets and more information, click here.